Francofonia (2015) bristles at labeling. The latest whatsit by Russian titan Alexander Sokurov moves comfortably between categories. It stands three paces to the right of the essay film and three paces to the left of the docudrama. With its rhetorical ruminations and dramatizations of historical events, Francofonia could be considered Sokurov’s stab at creative criticism.
Francofonia sees the filmmaker pondering themes and settings that he addressed in prior films. Like Russian Ark (2002), the 99-minute one-take film that catapulted Sokurov to international acclaim, Francofonia is about a museum. While the former explores the Hermitage, the latter examines the Louvre. Subtitled “An Elegy for Europe,” Francofonia belongs in the company of Sokurov’s prior documentaries like Moscow Elegy (1987) and Elegy of a Voyage (2001). As with his self-described tetralogy — the first three (Moloch , Taurus , The Sun ) dealt with 20th-century rulers (Hitler, Lenin, Hirohito respectively) while the final installment was an idiosyncratic adaptation of Goethe’s play, Faust (2011) — Francofonia probes power.
Not only do all these threads come together, but Francofonia also mixes formal conventions. It comes off as not necessarily fragmented, but multifaceted, not dense, but lithe and airy. Coming after the plodding Faust as well as the slight Alexandra (2007), the film is refreshing.
At the center of Francofonia is a historical event that happened in 1940, a year into World War II. In occupied France, Jacques Jaudard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) was the director of the French National Museums, including the Louvre. No friend of the Nazis, Jaudard successfully transported many works of art from the Louvre to secret provincial châteaux for safekeeping. Meanwhile, Hitler assigned Count Franziskuz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath) to micromanage and eventually confiscate the art in the Louvre as part of the Kunstschutz effort. Hitler picked the wrong man for the job, though. Not a firm believer in the Third Reich, Metternich was an art historian who took his job seriously. He stalled sending back the works of Old Masters, ultimately saving world treasures from the grubby hands of Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering.
Sokurov shoots these dramatized historical events so that the scenes resemble long lost working footage for a movie. While the rest of the film is shot in widescreen, these moments happen in a 4:3, fulls creen ratio. Highlighting the illusionism of the endeavor, at times a clapperboard (complete with the name of one of the film’s producers, Idéale Audience, legibly written on it) claps onscreen, designating the beginning of a take. Sokurov digitally manipulates the images to appear scratchy, ceaselessly flickering, and curiously enough, showing the wavy lines of the “analog” soundtrack being “recorded” on the left-hand side of the frame.
Elsewhere in Francofonia, Sokurov sits in his St. Petersburg studio poring over the research material for this film. At other times, there are shots of the Louvre’s empty galleries, save for two phantoms roaming throughout them. Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes), the French symbol for the Republic, and Napoléon (Vincent Nemeth) materialize. Marianne goes around the museum blurting the Republic’s motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” while narcissistic Napoléon toddles up to a painting that features him and says, “this is me.”
Guiding the viewer’s way through this strange brew of images is Sokurov himself. Although he digresses, Sokurov, as voice-over narrator, always moves the film forward, giving the viewer much needed contextual background on the Louvre, French and Russian history (for this is as much a film about the vulnerability of Eastern European and Russian art during World War II as it is about French art), as well as pithy opinions (“people can always be bought,” he declares). He addresses Marianne and Napoléon, commands Chekov and Tolstoy (seen in color-tinted photos) to wake up, and tells an incredulous Jaudard and a sober Metternich about their futures. He even talks to the viewer, asking if we’re tired of listening to him yet. No Sukorov, no we’re not.
Russian Ark may stand as a landmark in film history because of its technical achievement, but Francofonia is the stronger, more complex film. Russian Ark shuttles through history in one long take, a method now frequently used and abused thanks to digital cinema. Francofonia mulls over its chopped, split, and put back together French and European history. The film contemplates its many-splendored, many-layered view of war, art, and the hazardous intersection of the two.
Francofonia had its US premiere on January 8 at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria, Queens) as part of the First Look 2016 festival, which continues through January 24. Francofonia opens in New York City and select US cities on April 1.